REVIEW: Stratford Offers Musical Feast

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By MICHAEL KUCHWARA
The Associated Press
Saturday, June 23, 2007; 2:30 PM

STRATFORD, Ontario -- It's best to think of the 2007 season at the Stratford Festival of Canada as a giant buffet table. Pick and choose wisely from its parade of offerings during artistic director Richard Monette's final season (a lengthy 14-year run) and you will have a satisfying theatrical meal.

Much of the nourishment, though, is not coming from Shakespeare, but rather from a pair of musicals and a small, one-woman show that has returned to the festival for a second summer of performances at this major North American repertory theater.

Fourteen productions, playing at four different theaters, are running in rep through the beginning of November.

A sampling of five of the productions on view this year:

"King Lear"

It's puzzling that Stratford would do another "King Lear" only five years after its critically acclaimed 2002 production starring Christopher Plummer and directed by Jonathan Miller. But then, its latest Lear is Brian Bedford, an actor of uncommon ability and a Stratford favorite.

Bedford not only stars, he directed this straightforward, unsurprising revival. Much of its pleasures come from watching Bedford and another veteran Stratford actor, Scott Wentworth (as the loyal Earl of Gloucester), at work. Their scenes together are the best and most moving moments of the evening _ ancient warriors undone by age and misguided dealings with their own children.

There is a clarity, an almost modern, conversational approach to Bedford's performance, yet he appears positively primordial, almost unrecognizable with his shock of white hair and beard.

The seeds of infirmity and madness are planted early in Bedford's nuanced performance _ right from the opening moments _ as the actor makes his way slowly down the steep stairs of the Festival Theatre toward its thrust stage which is bare except for an ornate gold throne.

It's a production that's more successful in its dealings with kingdom than with kin. The Goneril of Wenna Shaw and the Regan of Wendy Robie are harpies of the first order, melodramatic in their evil and in their quest for power. Cordelia, the good daughter, pales by comparison in Sara Topham's wan performance, sapping the play's devastating ending of some of its considerable emotional impact.

"Oklahoma!"

Boisterous is the word for director-choreographer Donna Feore's "Oklahoma!" Her high-energy production of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic refuses to slow down, even during the more clunky aspects of Hammerstein's book, a tale that seems to go on almost as long as "Lear."

The simple story of who will take pert Laurey Williams to the box social is not much plot on which to pin a musical. But then the real reason for reviving "Oklahoma!" is its songs, now nearly 65 years old, and showing no signs of wearing out their welcome.

The rapid pace threatens to turn the characters into caricatures, twangy creations who would be more at home in Al Capp's Dogpatch than the Oklahoma territories, just after the turn of the 20th century.

Fortunately, such songs as "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'," "The Surrey With the Fringe on Top" and "People Will Say We're in Love," rescue their humanity, especially when sung by the two leads _ Dan Chameroy as that contrary cowboy, Curly, and Blythe Wilson as the strong-minded Laurey. Wilson, in particular, possesses a lovely, pure voice, ideally suited for Rodgers' lilting melodies and Hammerstein's honest, homespun lyrics.

If Lindsay Thomas is an aggressively comic Ado Annie, Kyle Blair displays a low-key likability (not to mention a talent for fancy rope twirling) as the genially dim Will Parker, and David W. Keeley glowers effectively as the tormented Jud Fry.

Feore's exuberant dances make this "Oklahoma!" move, but it's those R&H songs that will make you float out of the theater and into the cool, crisp Stratford evening.

"My One and Only"

"My One and Only" is all style and no substance but, oh, what style. By that, we mean the heavenly songs of George and Ira Gershwin, around which authors Peter Stone and Timothy S. Mayer have constructed the flimsiest of books.

It tells of the 1920s romance between an English channel swimmer (Cynthia Dale) and an all-American pilot, a would-be Lindbergh competitor (Laird Mackintosh). The show was a Broadway success in the early 1980s, starring Tommy Tune and Twiggy. If the Stratford leads are not quite as felicitously cast, they certainly are game participants in director-choreographer Michael Lichtefeld's high-spirited production.

The director's use of movement is a marvel of inventiveness, particularly in a giddy underwater ballet that taxes the ingenuity of set designer Douglas Paraschuk. He more than rises to the challenge.

The lanky Mackintosh is an expert tapper, and he gets strong support from a high-steppin' chorus of boys and girls. But then, it's hard not to have fun when you are dancing to such Gershwin standards as "S' Wonderful," "Strike Up the Band," "Nice Work If You Can Get It" and "Kickin' the Clouds Away."

"To Kill a Mockingbird"

Director Susan H. Schulman has set herself an almost impossible task with a reverential stage version of Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird." It has to compete not only with the memory of Harper's extraordinary, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, but with the excellent 1962 film version that starred Gregory Peck.

That Christopher Sergel's workmanlike adaptation succeeds as well as it does can be traced to the fine performances of Peter Donaldson as lawyer Atticus Finch and a trio of child actors, who portray the youngsters affected by the trial of a black man accused of raping a white woman in the 1930s South.

Abigail Winter-Culliford has the necessary gravity for Scout, the tomboy who learns bittersweet lessons about life, Thomas Murray is appropriately gawky as her brother Jem and Spencer Walker has a hilarious solemnity as Dill, a visitor from Mississippi (apparently modeled after a young Truman Capote).

The story is all there, but it's saddled with an awkward narrator (the grown-up Scout), portrayed by an earnest Michelle Giroux. Sometimes too much plot can bog down the dramatic fireworks.

"The Blonde, the Brunette and the Vengeful Redhead"

If you can get a ticket (a difficult proposition because it's in the festival's small Studio Theatre), Robert Hewett's "The Blonde, the Brunette and the Vengeful Redhead" is the one play to see. As the title obliquely suggests, this present-day, one-woman show _ with multiple characters _ is about infidelity of the marital kind.

All the roles are played by Lucy Peacock, a Stratford regular for 20 years, best known for her portrayal of classical roles. She is giving the performance of the Stratford season.

But then Hewett, a contemporary Australian playwright, has fashioned a marvelous, mysterious and often very funny story told from various points of view, including the outraged wife. It's difficult to describe "Blonde" because part of the fun of Hewett's tale is its unexpected twists.

The audience may be caught off guard, but Peacock is not. There is not a false note in her expert portrayal of more than a half-dozen characters. Shakespeare would have marveled at her dexterity.

___

On the Net:

http://www.stratfordfestival.ca


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© 2007 The Associated Press

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